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Parents may be notified sooner of students in trouble

Parents would be alerted before Fairfax County school officials question their children for serious disciplinary offenses as part of proposals that supporters say would help shift the culture of discipline in the region’s largest school system.

The measures, slated for a School Board vote Thursday night, require parental notification — or consent — before students can be questioned about alleged offenses that could lead to suspensions and other serious consequences.

They come as part of a larger deliberation that will touch on marijuana offenses and could mark a second wave of discipline reform in Fairfax — this one undertaken by a School Board with six new members since the last major vote a year ago.

“Parents have been cut out of the picture,” said Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who was elected in the fall. When students are kept out of class or turned over to police, she said, it alters “the trajectory of a minor student’s life, and I don’t think the school system should do that without the involvement of a parent.”

The issues of how students are questioned — and how discipline is meted out— became a flash point last year after the death of 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a high school football player who took his life after a disciplinary experience that many in the community viewed as overly punitive.

New proposals to involve parents early on have since been offered, renewing what could be a heated debate about student rights, campus safety and unintended effects.

Critics say that early parental notification would be unwieldy and time-consuming and hamper school investigations.

“It’s not practical,” said Kathy L. Smith (Sully). “How do you know who’s involved and what’s happening unless you ask questions?”

Parents are currently notified of disciplinary issues, but typically after questions have been answered and written statements obtained.

“I have not spoken to one single parent who doesn’t want more comfort when it comes to that,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill). The question, she said, is how an earlier notification process would work inside of schools.

Proposals up for debate would also require that parents be contacted before students are asked to write descriptions of their actions.

“An 8-year-old right now can be questioned and asked to write a statement — at 8 — with no parent there,” Schultz said. Parents’ involvement is “the last check mark of the to-do list” in discipline, she said, contending “that’s upside down and backwards.”

Several school board members said they had heard from principals who objected to the proposals. “None of us are in schools day to day,” Smith said. “How do you get to the bottom of things and keep schools safe?”

Efforts to reach principals Wednesday were unsuccessful.

An analysis posted online by Fairfax administrative staff said that students are not coerced to write statements and that school investigations could be impeded by the proposals. The analysis also said that without written statements, cases would hinge on oral accounts that may be seen as less accurate or valuable.

The Stuban case

Several board members cited Nick Stuban’s case in discussing continuing reforms in Fairfax. The teen was questioned without his parents’ knowledge, wrote statements without parental involvement and had no chance at a first-offender program.

Amid the outpouring of concern about discipline in 2011, other parents came forward with accounts of their children being questioned without a call home, including one involving middle schoolers and allegations of off-campus marijuana use.

Differing proposals

The notification proposals now up for debate — put forth by Schultz and board member Sandy Evans (Mason) — vary in their breadth and requirements.

Evans’s proposal would apply in cases in which students are in danger of 10-day suspensions with recommendations for expulsion. Schultz’s proposal covers a wider array of cases, including any with the potential for suspension, expulsion or police referral.

Evans said she would envision “reasonable efforts” to contact parents — by phone, e-mail and text — as problems surface. “They know when a kid’s in trouble,” she said, “and that’s when I want the parent to get a call.” If parents couldn’t be reached, the questioning could still begin, she said.

Schultz said her proposal would have the effect of requiring parental consent before students are questioned. If a parent wanted to be present, administrators would delay questioning.

Under both proposals, in dangerous or volatile situations, no notification is required before questioning.

On another discipline issue, board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) proposed allowing first-time marijuana offenders to participate in a substance-abuse program during their suspension rather than face a recommendation for expulsion.

Her idea is modeled after the Second Chance program in Arlington County that school leaders laud as a success. Of 88 participating students, two reoffended and one did not complete the program, Arlington officials said.

In Fairfax, “marijuana possession accounts for a large number of serious discipline cases,” McLaughlin said, and the goal is to minimize lost instruction time and intervene with at-risk teenagers as early as possible. “Equally important,” she said, “is to avoid the involuntary transfers that often come with marijuana offenses.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.



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